The Hole in the Sky

Think the Ozone Layer is Yesterday’s Issue? Think Again

In early August, Bert Ammons of Stuart, Florida pleaded guilty to violating the Clean Air Act when he attempted to smuggle ninety 30-pound cylinders of CFC-12, also known by its trade name, Freon, in false compartments on his 41-foot boat, Sierra. According to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officials, not only did Ammons plan to distribute the chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) to auto repair shops around Fort Lauderdale, but his ozone-depleting cargo also had a street value of approximately $68,000. If convicted, Ammons faces up to five years in prison and $250,000 in fines.

With millions of dollars in evaded taxes and illegal contraband, not to mention multi-agency federal initiatives with names like “Operation Cool Breeze,” it’s a wonder no one has written a Hollywood thriller about refrigerant and fire-suppressant smugglers. But what illegal CFCs lack in cultural cachet, they make up for in volume and profitability. Between 1994 and 1997, 6,367 tons of CFC-12 and 24 tons of CFC-113 (used as a fire suppressant) were smuggled across the U.S. border. That comes to $43 million in attempted tax evasion alone.

According to an unnamed official in the EPA’s Criminal Enforcement Division, illegal CFCs rank close to cocaine as some of the most profitable contraband coming across the U.S. border. The public may not be aware of it, but “black market CFC smuggling is considered a serious problem,” says Jack McQuade, an officer with the U.S. Customs Service.

Over the past 10 years, 173 countries including the U.S. have signed the landmark Montreal Protocol of 1987, a global agreement to phase out ozone-depleting chemicals. But the persistent trade in illegal CFCs is only one sign that ozone recovery is far from a sure thing. Recent scientific findings link global warming to ozone depletion, challenging prevailing assumptions that the ozone hole will begin to recover by the year 2050. In October, a major ozone hole opened for the first time over a populated city, Punta Arenas, Chile.

“Policy makers on down say: ?We solved the ozone layer problem. What’s next?’” says Kert Davies, science policy director at Ozone Action, a Washington D.C.-based public interest group. “We did the easy thing: We got rid of the CFCs. But when you try to get people to talk about methyl bromide and ozone depletion, about global warming and ozone depletion, it’s like pulling teeth.”

Declaring Victory?

No one disputes that stratospheric ozone recovery is one of the environmental movement’s great success stories. In the 1970s, scientists first discovered that CFCs and other chemicals could damage the Earth’s protective ozone layer, which shields life on Earth from the harmful effects of ultraviolet (UV) radiation. These concerns were substantiated in the 1980s by the discovery of the “ozone hole,” a thinning of the ozone layer over Antarctica. Additional studies showed that ozone depletion and the corresponding increase in UV radiation hitting the Earth’s surface, can have serious consequences for human health and the environment.

Incorporating science, technology and economics, the Montreal Protocol laid out timetables for every country to phase out production of CFCs. In the U.S., Congress amended the Clean Air Act to comply with treaty goals. The scientific community was also charged with re-evaluating the treaty and making amendments accordingly. In 1987, for example, the Protocol called only for a partial phase-out of ozone-depleting chemicals. But re-evaluations in 1989 resulted in a total phase-out of CFCs. Additional assessments in the 1990s led to a dramatic acceleration of the phase-out of the new chemicals, hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) and methyl bromide.

“The ozone depletion issue is a good example of the no-net-harm principle combined with the precautionary principle—acting on our knowledge when we have the presumption of a problem,” says Davies. “We discovered this hole, we thought there was a link to CFCs and we started moving.” The time it takes to get the ball rolling on an international treaty is so great, says Davies, that by the time the Protocol was in place, scientists knew even more about ozone depletion and were able to act accordingly.

At the beginning of the 21st century, experts agree that a world without the Montreal Protocol would be a horrendous one indeed. According to the Protocol’s latest scientific assessment, the world in 2050, absent the global agreement, would look like this: Ozone depletion would be at least 50 percent at mid latitudes. Surface ultraviolet radiation would double at mid latitudes in the Northern Hemisphere and quadruple at mid latitudes in the Southern Hemisphere. By the year 2060, there would be 19 million more cases of non-melanoma skin cancer and 1.5 million more cases of melanoma skin cancer. And then there would be the numerous unquantifiable effects, such as loss of immunity, lower productivity of crops and damage to aquatic ecosystems.

“The kind of global disaster we averted…is indescribable,” says John Passacantando, the former executive director of Ozone Action, now head of Greenpeace USA. “Had we not phased out this stuff, there would be so much chlorine in the stratosphere it would be like the scene of a bad movie.”
But temporarily thwarting apocalypse, experts caution, is no cause for complacency. According to the World Meteorological Organization, in September 1998, the ozone hole over Antarctica was larger and deeper than ever before measured; at 27 million square miles, it covered a surface area larger than North America. The ozone hole over the Arctic also deepened this year, with potentially far more damaging effects on human health.

The continued threat to the ozone layer can be explained in both political and scientific terms. Under the Montreal Protocol, developing countries have delayed timetables for ending production of ozone-depleting chemicals. Although industrialized countries were required to phase out CFCs by 1996 and methyl bromide by 2005, developing countries have until 2010 to phase out CFCs and until 2015 to phase out methyl bromide.

“The consumption of these chemicals in developing countries is still somewhere around 200,000 tons,” says Dr. Omar El-Arini, chief officer of the United Nations Multilateral Fund Secretariat in Montreal, which was established in 1990 to help developing countries comply with terms of the Montreal Protocol. The ozone layer will not recover without the participation of developing nations, he says. “There is only one sky and one ozone layer, which cannot be partitioned. “

Psst, Wanna Buy Some Ozone?

Here’s where the flourishing trade in illegal refrigerant comes in: CFC production not only continues in developing countries, it is dirt cheap to buy. Sources in the EPA’s criminal enforcement division say that in Mexico and China (among other developing nations), CFC-12 can be bought for $1 or $2 a pound and resold in the U.S for $20 or $25 a pound. Why the huge domestic mark-up? It’s a simple matter of supply and demand.

With some exceptions for medical use, and use in space shuttle equipment, the United States banned the import of CFCs and other ozone-depleting chemicals in 1996. However, millions of pieces of equipment that use CFCs are still

in service, including most automobiles built before 1994, air conditioners and other refrigeration equipment.

Although it’s possible to retrofit much of this equipment to be serviced with ozone-friendly alternatives, costs can run anywhere from a few hundred to thousands of dollars. Contributing to the problem, the U.S. and other industrialized countries allow the trade and use of recycled CFCs to maintain existing machinery. Because it’s almost impossible to distinguish between new and recycled Freon, traders illegally bring CFCs into industrialized countries in the guise of recycled substances or exports to developing countries. A high excise tax on the sale or use of CFCs in the U.S. ($5.35 per pound) also abets the illegal trade.

EPA and Customs Service officers say it’s impossible to estimate the quantity of illegal CFCs crossing the border. Nonetheless, the scope of the black market is startling. From Russia to Australia, federal officials paint a picture of worldwide CFC smuggling operations that run the gamut from small-time entrepreneurs to sophisticated money laundering conspiracies.

Since the launch of a nationwide CFC enforcement initiative in 1995, which involves the United States Customs Service, the EPA, the FBI and the IRS, over 100 individuals have been convicted for violation of customs law and the federal Clean Air Act. Defendants included Richard Schmolke, who was convicted last year for a scheme to illegally import 75,000 pounds of CFC-12 from Venezuela into Texas. Agents said that Schmolke was part of one of the largest Freon smuggling rings they had ever encountered.

Federal officials anticipate an increase in smuggling activity as the supply of legal CFCs is depleted by the end of this year, said Jack McQuade of the U.S. Customs Service. As of last July, a total of 5,438 pounds of CFC-12 had been seized along the southern border and 2,700 pounds of CFC-12 had been taken in the south Florida area, he says.

The reports sound like a parody of film noir. This past summer, the U.S. Customs Service regularly intercepted “frio banditos” coming across the Rio Grande, all with cylinders of CFCs strapped to their backs. Geographically, this is the frontline for new smuggling rings. “There are indications that consolidation of individually smuggled CFCs is now occurring along the U.S./Mexican border,” says McQuade.

Until older cars get off the road, and until developing countries stop producing CFCs, say EPA officials, CFC smuggling will continue. A related problem, according to El-Arini, is that industrialized countries are dumping CFC-containing products and equipment on developing nations. This will further complicate efforts by developing countries to comply with the Montreal Protocol, he says.

Despite widespread “cheating” and smuggling, the global effort to restore the ozone layer is a remarkable achievement, especially when viewed from an international political perspective. The Multilateral Fund, for example, helped the majority of developing countries freeze production and consumption of ozone-depleting substances at 1999 levels—the first Protocol obligation for these countries. Since 1991, the Fund has disbursed more than $1 billion to phase out the consumption of 142,000 tons of ozone-depleting chemicals in over 110 developing countries.

“This is the first real-life endeavor of mankind to join hands to solve environmental damage that threatens our common habitat, the Earth,” says El-Arini. “It proves that once the political commitment is there, national borders can be crossed to overcome a problem of a global dimension.”

Trouble at Home

Back at home, those familiar with the political scene aren’t quite so sanguine. This year, the U.S. is headed for a showdown over methyl bromide, a toxic ozone-depleting chemical used in this country primarily by California strawberry and Florida tomato growers. Introduced last spring by California Congressman Richard Pombo, the un-ironically titled Methyl Bromide Fairness Act would push back the U.S. phase-out date to 2015—the year developing countries are required to stop production and consumption of the chemical.

Due to its acute toxicity, methyl bromide is already banned in several countries, including the Netherlands and Canada. For years, environmentalists and health officials in the U.S. (which uses 40 percent of the world’s methyl bromide) have called for stricter regulation of the pesticide, especially in agricultural areas such as California’s Ventura County, where children and farm workers are at risk. Since 1982, nearly 500 poisonings linked to methyl bromide have occurred in California, 19 of them fatal.

The best account of methyl bromide’s tarnished history in American politics can be found in a report published by the Transnational Resource and Action Center (TRAC) and the Political Ecology Group (PEG) in 1997. Titled “Bromide Barons: Methyl Bromide, Corporate Power and Environmental Justice,” the report meticulously documents how the Big Three methyl bromide corporations, Albemarle, Great Lakes Chemical and Dead Sea Bromine, as well as California-based TriCal, the largest applicator of methyl bromide in the state, have systematically worked to roll back environmental regulations that threaten profit margins.

“Through various industry groups,” the report states, “including the Methyl Bromide Global Coalition and the Methyl Bromide Working Group, the bromide barons have hindered the development of alternatives to methyl bromide, cast doubt on the scientific consensus that methyl bromide contributes to ozone depletion, and influenced the political process through lobbying.”

In 1998, industry-backed congressional representatives tried—and failed—to pass a bill that would push back the phase-out date of methyl bromide. With an environmental rider to the 1999 budget, they succeeded: the date was bumped four years to 2005. Now it’s round three. At a House Agriculture Subcommittee hearing last July on the Methyl Bromide Fairness Act (which now has more than 20 sponsors), efforts to undermine the methyl bromide ban were relentless.

“While methyl bromide has been placed in the position of public enemy number one by the radical environmental community, we have lost sight of the fact that this may truly be a silver bullet compound,” excoriated Jim Culbertson, executive manager of the California Cherry Export Association. “The sky is not falling and agricultural methyl bromide is not the cause of the ozone hole.”

Claims that methyl bromide has a negligible effect on ozone depletion are simply not true, counters Azadeh Tabazadeh, an atmospheric chemist at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California. “In fact, the bromine in methyl bromide is a much better catalyst for ozone destruction than chlorine,” she says. “And just because we’ve reduced the amount of chlorine in the atmosphere doesn’t mean that the level of bromine is also going down. That’s why compounds like methyl bromide need to be regulated.”

The government and scientific community agree. The EPA identifies methyl bromide as a Class I ozone-depleting substance that will be phased out under the Clean Air Act. A 1994 paper, co-authored by several federal agencies and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP),

warns that with the phase-out of CFCs underway, the elimination of methyl bromide emissions “from agricultural, structural, and industrial activities” is the single most important step that the world’s governments can take to reduce future levels of ozone depletion.

Case studies listed by the EPA demonstrate that viable chemical and organic substitutes for methyl bromide do exist. “Farmers are reluctant to change because their crop production systems have been developed around methyl bromide, ” says Bill Thomas of the EPA’s Stratospheric Protection Division. “But a number of good alternatives to methyl bromide are now available, which should allow most growers to continue to produce their crops in a way they’re used to.”

Feeding the Loop

As U.S. special interests backpedal on methyl bromide, recent discoveries about ozone depletion in the Northern Hemisphere are forcing scientists to revise earlier claims that the ozone layer will begin to recover by 2050. Although satellites have detected an ozone “cavity” over the Arctic for several years, the phenomenon is growing worse. From November 1999 through March 2000, seasonal ozone concentrations in some parts of the Arctic declined as much as 60 percent.

From a human health perspective, Arctic ozone thinning is more worrisome than comparable reductions over Antarctica. This is because ozone-depleted air from the Arctic drifts south each spring toward highly populated areas in North America, Europe and Russia. Last year, a European Space Agency’s satellite revealed that ozone levels in Great Britain, Belgium, Netherlands and Scandinavia were nearly as low as those normally found in the Antarctic.

There’s another reason why the ozone hole over the Arctic is attracting attention. Scientists have known for some time that ozone lows are often associated with extremely low temperatures in the stratosphere and the presence of polar stratospheric clouds, which provide the template for the chemical reactions that destroy ozone. Polar clouds are also a common presence in the Antarctic, where temperatures are colder than the Arctic.

Here’s the key finding: Over the past couple of decades, the Arctic has become more like the Antarctic; in other words, it’s getting a lot colder. And as recent studies published in the journal Science suggest, global warming may be the culprit.

“It’s ironic because people have always been confused about ozone depletion and the greenhouse effect—the general public always thought they were intertwined,” says Davies. “And now it turns out they are.”

The feedback loop between global warming and ozone depletion works like this: The warming of the lower atmosphere known as the greenhouse effect traps warm air at the surface. This in turn leads to cooling in the upper atmosphere, which creates the conditions for ozone depletion to take place. CFCs, which deplete ozone, are also a culprit in global warming.

Scientists used to believe that as chlorine levels declined in the upper atmosphere, the ozone layer would start to recover, says Tabazadeh, who co-authored a recent study on the role polar clouds assume in ozone depletion. “That would be true only if the climate was persistently the same,” she says. “But if the climate is getting colder due to surface warming, the upper atmosphere is primed for massive destruction of ozone. Things are going to get worse before they get better.”

The discovery highlights yet another set of economic, environmental and political problems—namely, what to do about hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). HFCs were originally introduced as an ozone-friendly alternative to CFCs; however, they are now recognized as a powerful greenhouse gas, with as much as 4,000 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide (CO2).

So far, the HFC issue has underscored tensions between groups concerned about global warming and groups working toward ozone recovery. For example, this year Coca-Cola announced plans to phase out the use of HFCs in its cold-drink equipment. The move was applauded by environmental groups like Greenpeace but criticized by industry groups such as the Alliance for Responsible Atmospheric Policy, which said it would threaten the ozone layer as well as the economic competitiveness of companies that have invested millions in HFC technology.

The fight to protect the ozone layer has become a model for global environmental protection. But as the continuing battle over methyl bromide, the illegal trade in CFCs and now the controversy over HFCs suggest, environmental memory is not only short term—it can also be short-circuited. Whether new scientific discoveries result in more holistic public policies remains to be seen.

“The atmosphere has the potential to be the big wake-up call on the environment,” says Davies. “Because the more we look, the more we see that all these issues are connected. The atmosphere is the ultimate global commons.”